Monday, April 3, 2017

No. 211: Donald Trump's "America First" and Lynne Olson's Books

When I heard Donald Trump use his "America First" slogan during his campaign, it rang a bell. I was not alone. The expression drew criticism from many major media outlets. The Anti-Defamation League urged Trump not to use the slogan, but he continued to use it. In his inauguration speech, he said: "From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first."

Lynne Olson's Two Recent Books
Readers of The Insurance Forum over the years and readers of this blog know I enjoy reading political biographies and histories, especially those about the United States. Recently I read two superb books by Lynne Olson, an acclaimed World War II historian. One is Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour (2010). The other is Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 (2013). Her books are a delight to read; her writing style, character development, and story telling skill make her books page turners.

Olson's next book is Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War. It is to be published April 25, 2017.

Citizens of London
Citizens of London is about the many Americans who stood by Britain. Olson focuses on three in particular. One is John Gilbert Winant; he succeeded Joseph P. Kennedy as U.S. Ambassador to Britain and served in that position from March 1941 to April 1946. Another is Edward R. Murrow, the legendary broadcaster; he arrived in London in 1937 and served there until March 1946. Still another is W. Averell Harriman; he arrived in London shortly after Winant to administer U.S. Lend-Lease aid to Britain. Harriman later succeeded Winant as ambassador, and still later President Harry Truman sent him to disburse billions in Marshall Plan aid to the devastated European countries.

Those Angry Days
Those Angry Days is about the battle between isolationists and interventionists. Another battle was between strong interventionists who felt we should enter the war to save Britain from the Nazis, and moderate interventionists who felt we should help Britain only in other ways.

Olson focuses attention on American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh and his role as an outspoken isolationist. In that role, he associated with some long-time U.S. senators who, two decades earlier, had blocked President Woodrow Wilson's efforts to build the League of Nations. They thought we had been tricked into entering the Great War, and we should avoid being dragged into another world conflagration.

Olson also discusses Anne Lindbergh, who herself was an acclaimed author. Anne seems to have been trapped between her husband's views and her apparent leanings toward interventionism.

Olson describes an isolationist organization called the "America First Committee," with which Lindbergh worked closely. The organization collapsed immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After the attack, Lindbergh threw himself into the American effort to win the war.

Olson mentions strong concerns in Britain during the first few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In President Franklin Roosevelt's "date which will live in infamy" speech, he asked Congress to declare war against Japan. Congress did so. At that point Britain feared American resources would be diverted to a Pacific war and away from support for Britain. However, Hitler came to Britain's rescue by declaring war against the United States. Congress then declared war against Germany.

Olson's Blog Post
On January 30, 2017, ten days after Trump's inauguration, Olson posted on her blog an eight-paragraph item entitled "America First: A Bad Idea Then—and Now." The post is at Here are the second and seventh paragraphs:
As Trump is well aware, America First was the name of a notorious organization that crusaded for America's isolationism in World War II. In his channeling of that group, our new president aims to turn the United States into Fortress America, closing its borders, walling it off from the rest of the world, and focusing entirely on its own self-interest—as he defines it.
Now, under Trump, we are going back in time, "embarking," as the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has noted, "upon insularity and smallness." Although I usually don't agree with Krauthammer's views, I think he's spot on when he says, "Global leadership is what made America great. We abandon it at our peril."
I question five of Olson's words: "As Trump is well aware." He reportedly does not read books, and he was born after World War II. For those reasons I consider it likely he is not fully aware of the America First Committee and its major role in "those angry days."

I am reminded of the aphorism by philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I first saw it more than 50 years ago, when I read William Shirer's towering 1,200-page 1959 masterpiece, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Personal Comment
My paternal and maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from eastern Europe through Ellis Island around 1900. I often think about what they endured so that their descendants could live in our magnificent country.

On December 7, 1941, I was 12 years old and living with my family in Syracuse, New York. Early that fateful Sunday afternoon (Syracuse time), over the RCA radio at the north end of our living room, I learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

I hope Trump's focus on "America First" does not lead to the kind of disastrous consequences caused by the America First Committee. However, I am apprehensive about the anti-art, anti-immigrant, anti-intellectual, anti-judiciary, anti-media, anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-regulation, anti-science, egotistical, ignorant, isolationist, paranoid, selfish, untruthful, vengeful, wall-building Trump/Bannon administration.